Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Katalin Varga (film review)

So a couple of weeks ago we watched Katalin Varga, a film made by a British director, set near here and filmed in Hungarian (mostly) and Romanian.

There are actually quite a few similarities between this film and "Along the Enchanted Way" (which I just reviewed here), though they may not be immediately obvious. Essentially both are clearly made (written/produced/directed etc) by Britons who obviously came to Transylvania and fell in love with the whole mediaeval vibe thing here - the scything, the horse carts, the natural beauty, the wildness, all that stuff. This is overt in Blacker's book, and perhaps less so in Strickland's film. However, so lacking in action and events is much of Katalin Varga, that you can only assume that it must have been a vehicle for Strickland to indulge his desire to show long slow shots of Transylvanian landscapes, and storks lazily flapping over remote villages, and men in fields cutting hay, and horsecart journeys across wide open fields with mountain backdrops.

In addition both feature very much a local cast of characters - "Enchanted Way" with your actual real people, though some are pseudonymised, and "Katalin Varga" with local crews and actors (and as I mentioned here, some of whom are actually based in Csikszereda).

There are two major differences though. Firstly that Katalin Varga is fiction (at least I bloody hope it is), and secondly that while life in these pastoral villages in "Enchanted Way" is idyllic and romantic and somehow beautiful, in "Katalin Varga" it's nasty, brutish, and short.

It's difficult to describe the plot of Katalin Varga at all without giving half the film away (primarily because very little actually happens in it), so I won't bother trying. It's mostly filmed in Covasna county (in the town of Kommando/Comandau in case you're interested), and I guess it is somewhat atmospheric. But because the film appears to be actually a showcase for the scenery rather than the scenery forming a backdrop for the film, and because I live here and see all this scenery every day, I have to say it left me feeling a little bit ...well, bored, frankly.

But, I guess this is my problem rather than the film's. I've just started reading another book "Blue River, Black Sea" by Andrew Eames, in which he says, while he's explaining what brought him to this part of the world:
The final catalyst for the book was a trip I made to Transylvania, where I stumbled into an almost medieval landscape that I never dreamed still existed in Europe, of scything farmers and their fruit-collecting children, of horses and carts, of wells in the villages, wolves in the woods and bears in the hills. The storybook detail was captivating. The storks on the chimney stacks, clapping their beaks when their youngsters stood up. The chicks in homemade chicken runs on the roadside verges. the little smoking huts in every yard, breadmaking ovens for summer use. And the daily cow parade, when all the villagers' cattle brought themselves back from the fields punctually at milking time and wandered down the main street until the reached their owners' houses, where the gates would be standing open to welcome them home. Transylvania seemed a mythical place, one where you literally didn't count your chickens until they hatched, and one where you made sure you made hay while the sun shone
And he's right in that very evocative and very real description. That is, more or less, exactly how it is. And it is beautiful. But somehow living here, I have sort of forgotten. I no longer notice any of these things, so utterly normal are they. And that does make me slightly sad I think, that I live in this place which to an outsider seems almost impossibly exotic (in a very retro sense of exotic), but which has ceased to make me swoon on a daily basis as it obviously did Eames, and Blacker, and Strickland.

I haven't really reviewed "Katalin Varga" have I? To sum up, beautiful and evocative and atmospheric if you don't live in Transylvania, with a fairly slight (and very dark) plot.

[By the way, Katalin Varga, is actually the name of a famous Transylvanian woman who led a miners' movement. I presume the choice of her name for the lead character of this film is significant in some way, but I'm not sure what the significance is]

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

(Girl)friend in a koma

I went to a christening on Saturday, in which we (and a whole host of others) became godparents (I can only assume that the two actual parents have concluded they will just have the one child, as they must have godparentised pretty much everyone they know). It was a much better priest than the last one I saw christen a baby in this part of the world, but he’d have had to go some to beat that racist old bastard. (In truth he seemed like a nice bloke, for a priest, etc etc. He didn’t care that I, for example, am not, nor have any intention of ever being, a Catholic. Though he was apparently told that I am Anglican which is a little bit weird to me – in these parts you are what you were “at birth”, not what you actually decided to be once you were old enough to actually have an opinion of your own. Not sure if he’d have been more challenged to learn that I am actually a godless heathen rather than, as advertised “an Anglican”)

Anyway the post church bit party, featured the massed ranks of godparents (there were 11 of us for the record, I may have exaggerated a little for effect in the previous paragraph, but that’s still a fair number. An entire football team of godparents), and an absolutely (and dangerously) delicious apple palinka which I could have drunk all night, so smooth and tasty was it. As it was the few that I did have, were a few more than I should have had, as I discovered when staggering home.

During one (relatively sober) conversation with a fellow godparent, she used a word which I wasn’t really familiar with, to describe our relationship. As she had no idea of the English term for it, I called upon Bogi (my 11-year old stepdaughter, and occasional translator) to provide some help. “Koma?”, she said (for that was the word we were struggling with), “It’s, errm, someone you go to the pub with”. As a lapsed language teacher, I find this kind of circumlocution is very laudable, and I was proud of her way of coming up with a way of explaining something she couldn’t really translate. However, it turned out that this was a fairly loose translation, and in fact koma, in this instance at least, means the relationship that two godparents of the same child have with one another. I’m 99.9% sure that we don’t actually have such a word in English, so I could hardly fault her, and if it turns out that my komas become drinking buddies, then I shall not be complaining. (It also of course gives me a great opportunity to use a not-at-all-forced title for this blog entry)

We don’t have a word for that do we? Perhaps it’s that British way of remaining as distant as possible from people in case we suddenly end up with obligations or the necessity of a relationship. There is a slightly sickly expression “A stranger is just a friend you haven’t met yet”. I suspect the standard English version is “A stranger is someone you might not like, who you haven’t met yet”. And of course, we act accordingly.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Along the Enchanted Way (book review)

William Blacker is an Englishman who lived in Romania for 8 years from 96-04. This book is part travelogue, part autobiography, part love story and part elegy for a dying way of life. It takes place partly in Maramures in the village of Breb, not far from Sighet, and partly in the village of “Halma” in the Saxon lands. Halma is not its real name, as Blacker elects to keep the village anonymous for fear of what might happen there if he names it (I have a pretty good idea of which village “Halma” actually represents, but I’ll not speculate here).

The first half of the book mostly takes place in Maramures, where Blacker delights in the lifestyle of the Romanian peasant. He lives with an older couple, almost as their son, and learns the ways of the country – sharpening his scythe, cutting the grass, dealing with the seasons, travelling to market, wearing local clothes, drinking copious amounts of horinca (Maramures version of palinka). He bemoans the fact that this lifestyle is not long for this world, as modernity creeps along the valleys and through the forests, but marvels in it and delights in it and the discovery of this lifestyle existing in late 20th Century Europe.

Simultaneously he is falling in love with a Gypsy girl in “Halma”. This is the love story part of the book, though in fact the passion he has for the village life in Maramures comes through much clearer than the passion he has for Natalia. Perhaps it is a reluctance to expose his true feelings or just his Englishness coming to the fore, but it’s hard to really feel that he is actually in love with her. He just seems somewhat interested. This to me was the weakest point of the book. Almost like it’s a section he has to tell to make the story hang together, but he does so reluctantly and without any great willingness to do so.

The second half of the book sees Blacker move away from Maramures and take up residence in Halma with Natalia’s sister Marishka. This section of the book deals with the challenges and difficulties they face as well as describing the community problems that exist – a nearly extinct Saxon population, reduced to just one or two older people, with the village now taken over by Romanian and Rroma families (and a single Hungarian, Blacker’s new “father-in-law”). For me this was the most engaging part of the book, as the inter-group prejudices and struggles come to the fore, and Blacker is sort of forced into the role of reluctant peacemaker and champion of the downtrodden.

It is a fascinating book, and is beautifully written. The slow and easy pace of the Breb sections, matches the life of the village, and in a sense this is the love story of the book. As the action intensifies in Halma, the pace of the writing picks up too. He describes wonderfully and with a great deal of gentleness the peasant way of life, in an almost bucolic writing style, if there is such a thing. It’s clear he see the Maramures village life as something beautiful and is deeply saddened by its impending passing, which may (or may not) mean he is slightly guilty of overromanticising it, but that, I suspect is a subject for another blog post...

Monday, September 13, 2010

Small coincidences

Couple of little coincidences happened this week. Firstly I was sitting in the garden reading William Blacker's "Along the Enchanted Way" (review will follow later this week), when he describes how in Maramures (where he lived in a village) peasants often speak to their horses in German (rather than Romanian). The example he gave was zurück when they want the horses to go backwards. About half an hour later, a guy from the village shows up to take away some construction rubbish (rubble, etc) from the mess that constitutes our garden at the moment. He has a horse and cart to do this job, and lo and behold but as he tries to persuade the horse to go back and take the cart closer to the pile, there it is... "zurück". So Hungarians speak German to horses too.

Then on Saturday night we watched Katalin Varga, a film that was made not far from here a couple of years ago by a British director, with local actors (also a review to follow). As I stood in the Orange shop to pay my phone bill, who should stand behind me in the line but the guy who plays Gergely, a fairly important character in the film (I can't really say much more for fear of giving too much away). And then after that I come to the office and there sitting next to me is another guy who was in the film playing one of the police.

It's a fascinating life I lead, and no mistake

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Before the fall

It feels like summer didn't happen this year. May and June were appalling weather-wise, and I spent July and August out of the country working. And now it's September and all of the signs are that winter is on its way
  1. The storks have gone*
  2. People have started harvesting potatoes
  3. We picked a barrel full of plums off the ground in the garden this weekend (we measure plums in barrels because that's where they make their transition from small fruits to delicious winter warming palinka)
  4. It's already pretty cold (though thankfully not yet as cold as it was in England 10 days ago when I was freezing my arse off)
  5. Trees have started changing colour
  6. The kids go back to school next week
  7. The ice hockey season starts this evening with Sport Club playing Steaua. On September 7th! Ice Hockey! Bloody hell. (Apropos of which, I've just discovered a new English language Sport Club blog)
See what a rural nature-based life I lead? Apart from the ice hockey and school bits obviously.

Thankfully here we don't have the arrival of Christmas decorations in the shops until much much later in the year (unlike the UK where apparently this year they started in August), but it does feel like we're on the slow slide towards winter. I like autumn, really, and it's especially beautiful here in Transylvania, but it just feels too early. I'm not ready for this yet, I need to have a summer first. Please.

(*Storks seem to be the primary measure of weather and seasons here. In addition to their arrival and departure dates being of interest, this year, I'm told, the early summer was so rubbish that their eggs didn't hatch, and so they laid a second batch. These did hatch, but the resultant young are not big enough to fly south for the winter, so they will stay here and die. This tragic tale would be more convincing were I to have seen any of these poor doomed orphan storks anywhere, but I haven't, so I'm not sure whether it's of any validity)

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Greet Expectations

I'm going to go out on a limb here and suggest that there are very few places in the world where the act of greeting someone on the street is as complex and fraught with difficulties as here in Csikszereda.

Let's start with Hungarian, to get us going. Now in Hungarian there are many ways of greeting someone, many of which are entirely dependent on a perceived or actual relationship between greeter and greetee.

Informally, you can go with szia or szervusz, unless of course you are greeting more than one person, in which case it is sziasztok or szervusztok. Apparently szia is slightly more informal than szervusz, but this is not something I've ever really encountered. You can also, as I may have mentioned before, actually use hello.

However, even if you know the person, you have to be a little bit careful with such levels of informality, because saying it someone to whom you ought to be granting some form of respect (older people, VIPs, etc), could cause offense. Even if you don't reckon they've earned that respect. To an older woman, for example, you are supposed to go with Csókolom which is sufficiently respectful for that group. (However, I occasionally worry that if I offer a Csókolom to someone who is younger than me, or around the same age, or just marginally older, but who seems "obviously" older, I risk causing age related offence).

To an older man, or someone you don't really know (assuming they don't fall into the "older woman" category), you need to offer some form of good morning/day/evening etc. This would be jó reggelt (good morning) or, gussied up a bit, jó reggelt kívánok (I wish you good morning - it's not clear what else you might be doing with your "good morning" if you're not wishing it, but there you go). Others include jó napot (good day) and jó estét (good evening). OK, so far so good, but then you have to remember that what you might consider the morning is not necessarily the morning to a Hungarian (nor to a Romanian for that matter, but we'll come to that). Say jó reggelt at 11am, and you are looked at like you are mad. In villages it's even worse, because the morning very definitely seems to finish at 9am. A 9.15am jó reggelt would probably get you kicked out of the community for being a lazy good-for-nothing who didn't actually wake up at 4 to feed the chickens (or whatever it is that people do at 4am)

It's been 6 years now, and I still mix some of this stuff up. Yesterday I was going to pay the phone bill and saw someone I sort-of-half-knew, and offered a cheery szia. The moment it left my mouth I knew that this was almost certainly a jó napot situation and that I had erred. The really tricky thing is that if you are greeted first you don't necessarily respond in kind, like you do in English. Children (especially polite ones) tend to Csókolom all adults, and I may have inadvertently confused one or two kids in my early days here by offering the same greeting back.

OK, so that sums up the greeting challenges in Hungarian, but here of course there is another level of difficulty - the fact that some people you meet aren't actually Hungarian, but Romanian (this being Romania and all that). Thankfully, Romanian doesn't seem quite as complex as Hungarian in this regard. Here in Transylvania there is the use of szervusz (though I am sure it's not spelled like that by Romanians), but apparently that's only here, and not elsewhere in the country. Then there are the various good (insert period of day) greetings, in which like Hungarian, there is a "different" understanding of what constitutes "morning". I said bună dimineaţa (good morning) to two Romanians I met in England a couple of weeks ago (at about 11am) and they laughed as if I was an idiot, and said "Dimineaţa?" with heavy emphasis. You can just about get away with the bună bit on its own most of the time (you couldn't just say any more than you could just say "good" in English).

The extra level of challenge here is knowing who you should greet in Hungarian and who in Romanian. Obviously if you know them well, it's no issue, but sometimes you sort of half know someone, but can't actually remember what their first language is. There are two Romanian blokes who live in my building for example, but I am always confusing them with a Hungarian bloke who also lives there, and so I frequently guess wrong (and I never seem to learn).

The only one I always get right is my own slightly pathetic little rebellion against organised religion, whereby I always offer a cheery jó napot kívánok to any Orthodox priest I walk past on the street (knowing full well that he must be a Romanian), and a similarly breezy bună ziua to Catholic priests (knowing full well that they must be Hungarians). I like to think it throws them a little, and it makes me feel vaguely smug for a nanosecond, so that's a result in my mind.